Changing The Way We Think About Mother’s Day

Our family belongs to a gay synagogue, so most of the parents who attend the children’s services with their kids are gay. One Yom Kippur our rabbi asked for a show of hands. “Who has two moms?” she asked. “Who has two dads? Who lives with a grandparent or an aunt or uncle? Who has only one mom? One dad?” And so on. The kids kept on raising their hands, one group after another, sometimes giggling, sometimes saying something proud like “ME!” Finally, rabbi Weiss asked: “Who has a mom and a dad?” All the (mostly gay and lesbian) parents in the room raised their hands. And then it hit me: while we are trying to provide our children with alternative views of families, the families we grew up in are almost always the traditional nuclear mom-and-dad model; for most of us, this was and still is our parenting experience.

In our family there are two dads, and a daughter and son (twins) who turned 3 just a few months ago. When I’m asked, it is very easy for me to affirmatively state: Our kids have two dads or, as we say at home, an aba and a daddy. But people always wonder, and people sometimes (especially kids) are brave enough to ask: Do they have a mom?

Technically they don’t, our kids were born with the help of a gestational surrogate, which means that we received an anonymous egg donation which together with our sperms was used to create embryos, which were subsequently carried by our friend, who served as the children’s surrogate. Over the years, friends, family and many strangers have suggested that one of these two women must be “the mother.” We answered politely that we call one the egg donor and the other the surrogate, but mostly they seemed unsatisfied by these answers. Usually I think this is just a matter of educating them on our family structure, but sometimes I do attributed it to being insensitive, homophobic, dad-phobic, or mother-centric depending on the person asking and his or her tone. Many people think it is just fine for a same-sex couple to have kids but still believe that a mother is necessary for the healthy development of a child. Others have pointed out that children born using anonymous sperm or egg donation will always wonder about their genetic parent, and that we are depriving them of a right to know their biological mother.

My friends in similar family settings have tried to address these issues in many admirable ways: I have seen fathers asking their children, “Do you have a mom?” just to demonstrate how the kids answer so clearly, “No, I do not; I have two dads!” Others have created strong bonds with women in their lives that the children could identify with as the equivalent of a mother figure: an aunt, grandmother, the surrogate herself, or sometimes a caregiver. When asked, many of us will gladly point you to solid research indicating that children of same-sex couples are just as happy and healthy as children who grow up with a mother and dad. I would be grateful if someone could show this information to my 3-year-old, who was at that moment extremely unhappy about a variety of things: from not being able to play on my iPhone to having to take a bath.

For example, in her book “Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms,” Dr Susan Golombok says that children of same-sex couples do just as well as children in traditional families. The problems some children face come from outside the family rather than within it and depend very much on where they live. She argues that schools should make an active effort to combat the stigmatization of children in different families. Dr Golombok is currently carrying out a study of children with gay dads who were born with the help of a surrogate. The study should be completed this summer, and the very much anticipated findings will be available shortly after.

In spite of these positive research results, it’s hard not to wonder about the effects of growing up without a mom, and not only that, but with no mother ever having existed. My husband Eric sometimes points out that women used to die in childbirth with terrible frequency, and that even his grandmother never knew her own mother because of this common tragedy. While she was raised by her father and grandmother, she still knew that a woman who was her mother had at least lived at one time and had been known by the people in her life. Our kids wouldn’t be able to imagine a mother. The idea of our kids having nothing but a void where a mother would normally be sometimes kept me up at night.

Asaf and Eric with their twins

A few months ago our children started using the “M-word”: mommy this, mommy that. Their pretend play always involved a mother, and when my 3-year-old wanted to do something she knew I wouldn’t approve of, she pulled this one: “My mommy told me I could do it!” One evening I decided to follow the advice of our parenting coach Shelly MacDonald and to play them a story-on-tape at bed time. Of course, she meant I should carefully pick a pre-screened, preferably educational, story. But it was late, and I made the mistake of just finding something on YouTube. That something was Cinderella. About three minutes into the story, Cinderella’s mother dies and her father marries another woman “because he wanted them to have a mother.” Well, no good deed goes unpunished, and my attempt to exit the room early one night turned into my having to listen to this story and then spend a long time explaining it to them.

Another day I decided to read to them Cory Silverberg’s book "What Makes a Baby.” I should have learned my lesson by now about introducing topics just before bed that need to be followed by a time for our children to process and ask questions. So here I was again, way past even my own bedtime, trying to explain and make sure no one went to sleep with open questions.

One challenging day in our home, and we didn’t need a reason beyond the fact that we had two tired dads after a long week at work and two 3-year-old children who needed our attention, Eric, in a moment of painful honesty, said, “We need a mom in this family.” That shocked me for a moment, but then I thought, Maybe he’s right. I think we are excellent parents, but does our family need a mom?

I know this may be an unpopular thing to say among my friends, as many of them have fought the social and legal system to allow two fathers (or single fathers) to become parents. Doubting our capability to provide our children with a healthy environment to grow can destroy years of hard work to achieve parenting equality. So, I asked Eric what he meant.

Eric lost his mother to cancer the week that our two little embryos, who later grew to be our children, were implanted in our surrogate’s womb. His mom, Maggie, who would have loved our children so much, never got to meet them. But more than that, Eric hasn’t had the chance to have his mom around as he became a father, and now, all of a sudden, it hit him: He needed his mom.

So here we are, two loving dads with kids who are now talking nonstop about the mother they do not have (who will let them stay up all night and eat ice cream for every meal, of course). We have the research that supports same-sex parenting. We have one dad who very much misses his own mother. And now comes Mother’s Day.

I love reading and rereading Liza Mundy’s article “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” published in The Atlantic. Here is a piece:

"The belief that gay marriage will harm marriage has roots in both religious beliefs about matrimony and secular conservative concerns about broader shifts in American life. One prominent line of thinking holds that men and women have distinct roles to play in family life; that children need both a mother and a father, preferably biologically related to them; and that a central purpose of marriage is abetting heterosexual procreation. During the Supreme Court arguments over Proposition 8, Justice Elena Kagan asked Cooper whether the essence of his argument against gay marriage was that opposite-sex couples can procreate while same-sex ones cannot. ‘That’s the essential thrust of our position, yes,' replied Cooper. He also warned that ‘redefining marriage as a genderless institution could well lead over time to harms to that institution.'”

And here is where it becomes genius (and very relevant to what I am trying to say):

"But what if the critics are correct, just not in the way they suppose? What if same-sex marriage does change marriage, but primarily for the better? … [B]y providing a new model of how two people can live together equitably, same-sex marriage could help haul matrimony more fully into the 21st century. Although marriage is in many ways fairer and more pleasurable for both men and women than it once was, it hasn’t entirely thrown off old notions and habits. As a result, many men and women enter into it burdened with assumptions and stereotypes that create stress and resentment. Others, confronted with these increasingly anachronistic expectations—expectations at odds with the economic and practical realities of their own lives—don’t enter into it at all.

"Same-sex spouses, who cannot divide their labor based on preexisting gender norms, must approach marriage differently than their heterosexual peers. From sex to fighting, from child-rearing to chores, they must hammer out every last detail of domestic life without falling back on assumptions about who will do what. In this regard, they provide an example that can be enlightening to all couples. Critics warn of an institution rendered ‘genderless.' But if a genderless marriage is a marriage in which the wife is not automatically expected to be responsible for school forms and child care and dinner preparation and birthday parties and midnight feedings and holiday shopping, I think it’s fair to say that many heterosexual women would cry ‘Bring it on!’"

And yet, even if providing a fairer model of parenting is wonderful for the parents, I am not always sure it is the best for children. I have no doubt that children benefit from seeing their mother have a successful career and having their father put bandages on skinned knees, but maybe for consistency, there is some emotional benefit to having these traditional maternal and paternal functions provided by just one of the parents, be it a man or a woman.

Asaf and Eric with their twins

Like many kids, our kids had long periods of having miserable colds over the winter, and when they had a fever we found ourselves running between the two kids with syringes of liquid Tylenol. At one point in the middle of the night, we were not sure which kid had gotten how much and when, because we both had been giving medicine to the kids. (We had created a sheet on the fridge to record this, but in our sleepy haze it had been neglected.) And then Eric said, “If we were a straight family, the wife would be in charge of medicine and there would be no confusion.” You the reader may not agree with the statement, but watching children’s medicine ads makes it very clear that marketing research does agree with Eric: In most homes the mother is in charge of taking care of the kids when they are sick.

I don’t know that growing up in a family like ours is perfect; there are probably some challenges that kids growing up in a family with a father and a mother do not face that our kids will face. Here is my proposal: I think that our families can offer all of us an opportunity to challenge the stereotypes of the maternal and paternal functions in our families, and there is no better time to do so than on Mother’s Day.

In Israel, where I grew up, Mother’s Day was transformed into Family Day, a day to celebrate all members of the family, especially the parents. But I don’t think we need to take away from retailers and card-makers the opportunity to sell us cards and gifts both on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, so I propose that we keep both, and use both as an opportunity to discuss families among ourselves and with our children. We should remember that many families do not have a mother or a father, and that there are single parent families (by design, or because of circumstance) and same-sex parent families. In other families the mother figure may not be the biological mother, either through adoption, egg donation or surrogacy, or as a step mother. The same goes for fathers. We will give all of our children the respect they deserve, by providing them some options on this day.

As much as I love parenting books, I passionately hate it when they don’t give any practical advice. “What do you mean ‘Build a stronger bond with your child,’” I mentally ask the author of the book that only makes me feel I'm a horrible parent, without giving me even a clue on how to change it. So here is some practical advice about speaking with your children about Mother’s Day (and you can adapt it for Father’s Day):

  • Share with your children the story of your own families, first your childhood family and then your current family. The best way to get children to speak is to tell them about yourself. Have you ever tried asking a child “What did you do at school?” My 3-year-old answers “Changed stations.” Every single time. We still don’t know what it means. Tell them about your day, and they will keep talking about their own for hours.
  • Find some families that your kids may know about that are of non-traditional form. There is no need to bring up their uniqueness; your kids, depending on their age, will bring it up on their own if they need to.
  • Speak with your children about the roles that we each have in our family, but try to avoid labeling. You could say, "I really like how daddy makes breakfast on Saturdays, it makes me feel loved. He does it almost every weekend.” Or, “I noticed that every evening you make sure your sister has her teddy bear in her bed; you like taking care of that.”
  • Read books that offer modern family forms. Men Having Babies has an excellent list of books that focus on families with two dads formed with the help of a surrogate. There is also a great list by Patricia Sarles for gay-themed picture books for children and books for children that are focused on assisted reproductive technology.
  • If you are an educator, reach out to all the parents in the class in advance of Mother’s Day and discuss your plan for preparing and celebrating the day in your class.
  • If you are a parent with children in day care or school, reach out to the teacher in advance, even if your family is traditional.
  • Brent Almond has published a list which includes some of the ways that gay dads celebrate Mother’s Day. Here are some examples:
  • Picking one or both of the parents as the maternal figure.
  • Celebrating all the moms we know.
  • Celebrating other moms in our family, like a close grandmother or aunt
  • Celebrating a birth mom (even if it’s a closed adoption, you can still write a card to her).
  • Celebrate Surrogacy or Egg Donor Day, either the same day or the day before.
  • Celebrate all the caregivers in our family.
  • Give our own families, and children, the option not to celebrate Mother’s Day, if that is what we wish to do.
  • I personally am really excited about this Mother’s Day: For the first time in a really long time my mother, who lives in Israel, will be with us on this day. So this year, I can say thank you in person. Happy Mother’s Day.

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